On matchday two of UEFA Europa League, we saw the current leaders of La Liga take on the second-placed team in Serie A. A little odd, right? Well, that has been the case early on this season. Real Sociedad hosted Napoli in what many said to be the match of gameweek two. Real Sociedad have got off to a blistering start in La Liga and currently top the league with 14 points in seven matches.
Napoli are off to a similar start, and have won every match in Serie A (barring the forfeit against Juventus). The Naples-based side suffered an upset on the opening matchday as they lost to the Dutch side AZ Alkmaar. Sociedad came into this match hoping to continue their good run of form and Napoli with hopes to bounce back.
In this tactical analysis, we will discuss how Napoli shut out Sociedad and managed a 1-0 win, thanks to a stunner from Matteo Politano, which has opened up their group and has made things interesting.
Napoli lined up in a 4-3-3 formation and made six changes to the side that lost last week. Lorenzo Insigne came back into the side after recovering from his hamstring injury. Striker Andrea Petagna lead the line with Politano coming in from the right. Mario Rui can back into the left-back position as Elsied Hysaj moved back to his favourable right-back position. Diego Demme, Stanislav Lobotka and Tiémoué Bakayoko completed the midfield three.
Real Sociedad also lined up in the 4-3-3 formation and made two changes to the side that won last week. Ander Guevara returned to the side at the defensive mid position. A last-minute change to the starting XI saw Aritz Elustondo miss out after an injury in the warm-up. Modibo Sagnan took his place at the heart of the defence. Veteran David Silva started alongside Mikel Merino in the midfield. Alexander Isak, Portu, and Mikel Oyarzabal completed the front three.
Real Sociedad’s attempt to build from the back and Napoli’s proactive press
Real Sociedad were the dominant of the two teams on the ball and Imanol Alguacil’s men tried to build from the back. They tried to build-up using a 4-1-2-3 formation. The defensive midfielder Guevara stayed back as the direct passing option for the keeper and the centre-backs. Silva and Merino stayed up the pitch and usually maintained their positions.
Napoli were able to tackle their build-up from the back very well. They pressed right from the front and switched into a 4-4-2 diamond to press. The wide midfielders of the diamond stayed close to the full-backs. Petagna and Lobotka pressed the centre-backs which opened the passing lane to the Sociedad’s sitting midfielder Guevara. But Napoli’s Demme made sure to remain close to him. Hence Sociedad stayed clear of this route to avoid mistakes.
Sociedad were left with very few passing options. Silva and Merino dropped between the lines and forced one of the wide midfielders to follow them. This opened a passing option and Sociedad initiated their attack.
In the image above, we can see how Napoli have covered all the short passing options. This forces keeper to look up the pitch and go long. Bakayoko is left alone with Silva and Merino and stays in between them. Remiro plays an inch-perfect pass to Merino who turns and passes it to Silva before Bakayoko comes close to challenge him, who is able to move the ball forward. This play ended with Sociedad’s best chance of the first half.
Napoli’s cautious defending
Napoli pressed high up the pitch, but as soon as the ball left Sociedad’s defensive third they switched to a flat 4-4-2. Gattuso is known for his defensive tactics and this match was a perfect example of it. Sociedad dominated the possession but found it difficult to create clear-cut chances. Whilst defending, Napoli switched to a narrow block and gave minimal space down the middle. They made sure Sociedad were pushed to the wings and pressed them on the flanks.
The attacking midfielder, Lobotka joined the striker to complete the front two. The wide midfielders dropped back to support the central midfielders.
Real Sociedad’s high press
Real Sociedad started the game with immense intensity and for the first 15 minutes of the match, the first touch of everyone on the pitch was tested at the highest level. Sociedad pressed right from the front and gave Napoli a tough time at the start. Sociedad’s approach was simple, try to win the ball as soon as possible and as close to the goal as possible. Sociedad continued to press Napoli throughout the match as Napoli looked to become pragmatic. The pressing intensity (passes allowed per defensive action) varied greatly. Sociedad had PPDA of 7.7 where on the other hand the Naples-based side had 19.4. In the second half, this gap was the most with Sociedad producing a defensive action every 3.5 passes and Napoli doing the same every 21.5 passes.
Even though Sociedad pressed like warriors and tried winning the ball back as soon as possible, their press was unorganised and left spaces at times. The players were guilty of pressing even when it was unnecessary.
Sociedad’s attacking phase
As soon as the ball left the defensive third of Sociedad, Napoli dropped to a flat 4-4-2 and this gave Sociedad a lot of the possession. They had 66% of the ball and dominated the proceedings. While on the ball, the Spanish side shifted to a 3-3-2-2 formation. Guevera dropped between the central defenders while the two full-backs pushed forward and Merino stayed central. David Silva and Oyazrbal positioned themselves between the Napoli’s defensive and the midfield line. The remaining two attackers occupy the half-spaces between the defenders.
Guevera, Sagnan, and Le Normand played 95, 99, and 92 passes. These numbers were far superior to their counterparts. Koulibaly played 38 passes, most for Napoli. The back three were efficient in recycling the ball and keep the game moving
Silva and Oyazrbal are very intelligent players and drop in small spaces between the lines. Whenever Silva received the ball in such spaces, he made a quick turn and with his vision and passing skills, opened up the game for Sociedad. He was key in their build-up play.
But with Napoli’s flat 4-4-2 and narrow block, it became difficult for Sociedad to play down the middle and were forced out wide. The full-backs provided the back three with good passing options, but due to lack of ability and Napoli’s lower block, the full-backs couldn’t produce much.
Napoli exposing Sociedad’s high line
We have earlier discussed in this analysis that Sociedad were pressing very high up the pitch. To support this high press, they had to play a high defensive line to shorten the playing field. But their high line was a little too high at times and the pacy wingers of Napoli tried exposing it a few times. In a game where chances were thin for Napoli, their best scoring opportunities came by exposing this high line.
In the above picture, we can observe Sociedad’s high line. Two out of their four defenders are past the half-line which makes them useless for offside and leaves a huge gap behind. This gap was created when the Napoli striker dropped deep. The full-back followed him and left space behind him. Petagna quickly played the ball to Lobotka, who played a first-time pass to the runner behind the line, Insigne.
From this attack, Napoli’s best chance of the game came. An opportunity which should have been finished. As Napoli sat deep in a lower block, these fast breakaways were their best chance to create something.
This match was heavily dominated on the ball by Sociedad, and they even created much more chances but were unable to take those. An amazing defensive display from the Italian side along with the deflected strike from Politano secured a victory and a clean sheet at the famous Anoeta.
The group has been split open and any of the sides can go through the next round. Napoli and Sociedad are still the favourites but the Eredivise side of AZ Alkmaar with six points, sit top of the table right now.